Palestinians: Visa Scheme — [Martin Vickers in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall am 6:53 pm ar 13 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Stephen Kinnock Stephen Kinnock Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration) 6:53, 13 Mai 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend Cat Smith for bringing forward this extremely important debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee and the 103,000 constituents across the country who signed the petition. I also thank all hon. Members present for what has been an incredibly powerful and moving debate. We have all been struck by how heavily subscribed it has been and the high degree of unanimity in the views that have been expressed across the House.

The terrorist atrocities conducted by Hamas on 7 October 2023 killed over 1,100 innocent civilians. They included cases of rape and sexual violence, and the kidnapping of 250 people, the majority of whom have still not been released. It is almost impossible to comprehend the fear and anguish felt within those families who have been torn apart, and the unimaginable pain of the relatives of the hostages.

As has been stated so clearly today, the Israeli Government’s response and the subsequent war in Gaza has ended the lives of tens of thousands of innocent people, many of them women and children. It continues to cause untold misery and heartache to hundreds of thousands more who have lost loved ones or had to flee for their lives, and now over 1 million people in Gaza face famine.

We should never forget that at the heart of this conflict are human beings who simply seek to live their lives free of violence, fear and intimidation, who want nothing more than to protect their families and loved ones, and build a successful future for them and their children. The urgent imperative is therefore to bring an end to this war, and we urge the Government to use every ounce of their diplomatic leverage to create the conditions needed for an immediate ceasefire observed by both sides, with the immediate release of hostages and immediate, unimpeded aid to Gaza.

We have also been absolutely clear that the forced displacement of the Palestinian people is unacceptable. The priority following an immediate ceasefire must be for Gazans to be able to return to their homes and their land, to begin to rebuild all that they have lost during this devastating war, and to ensure that their displacement does not become permanent. This will be made exponentially harder by an Israeli offensive in Rafah, which risks catastrophic consequences, and therefore, the Labour party passionately opposes any intervention by the Israeli forces in Rafah. Indeed, the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy, said in the main Chamber on Tuesday of last week:

The United States has said” that an offensive in Rafah

“would be a disaster, the European Union has said that the world must prevent it, and the United Nations Security Council has called for an immediate ceasefire. Benjamin Netanyahu is ignoring the warnings of Israel’s allies and partners, the United Kingdom included.” —[Official Report, 7 May 2024;
Vol. 749, c. 444.]

The Rafah crossing is, of course, essential for moving humanitarian assistance into Gaza, and therefore the safety of those operating aid deliveries and of those receiving the aid must not be compromised.

In tandem with that essential diplomatic work, and as the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza continues to worsen, the UK must consider the impact on British residents and citizens who have family in Gaza and are desperately seeking to ensure their safety. We have heard the indescribable anguish of British Palestinians regarding the fate of family members, including orphaned children who are trapped in Gaza, and their struggle to bring their relatives to safety.

For instance, we know of one father who is here in the UK, desperately trying to reunite with his wife and three young children who are currently trapped in Gaza and sheltering in a house with more than 200 other people. His twin babies are suffering with health issues, and his wife fears that she will run out of milk to feed them. We have heard of the plight of an unaccompanied 14-year-old boy who is alone in Gaza, having lost both his parents and been separated from wider family, who seeks to join his brothers in the UK, who are British citizens. His brothers are settled and working in the UK, and are desperate to have him join them. These are harrowing and horrific tales.

At the moment, these families and others like them have been unable to leave Gaza. Even where they should qualify for family reunion under UK immigration rules, they are facing insurmountable barriers. For example, we have heard reports of long delays in getting decisions or visas issued, and families are also being told that they will not be given their visas—even though they are eligible—until they have submitted biometrics data. However, there is no infrastructure left in Gaza at all, and it is completely impossible to get biometric data submitted from within Gaza itself. Although biometrics could be submitted from Egypt, the vast majority of these individuals and families are not able to travel to Egypt without some kind of visa or assistance from the UK. As a result, they are trapped.

This is a desperate and deeply distressing scenario, and I therefore urge the Minister to look rapidly at the following issues. Will the Home Office now defer the biometrics requirements for those who are eligible for family reunion, but cannot physically get out of Gaza, until they can get to a visa application centre in Egypt or another country? Similar arrangements were rightly made for Ukrainians, and could be replicated for Gaza now, as other countries such as Canada are already doing. Will the Government now urgently operate a scheme whereby individuals in Gaza can have their family reunion visas assessed either online or by telephone, as is the case with the Canadian Government, and approved in principle before being assisted to leave Gaza, with biometrics data then being submitted in Egypt prior to travel to the UK?

Secondly, will the FCDO work urgently to ensure that all those who hold UK visas or are eligible for family reunion, but must leave Gaza in order to submit biometrics, are assisted to leave? What co-operation has there been with Egypt on that issue, and how will it be managed if the Rafah crossing closes altogether? Will the Home Office and FCDO look urgently at wider obstacles to family reunion for the family members of British citizens and residents who are trapped in Gaza? What more could be done to help British Palestinians get their relatives to safety? British Palestinians have made it clear that their families who come here will want to return home to Gaza as soon as it is safe to do so, so right of return must be built into the process.